Analysis: Czech PM must clarify Government's stance on discrimination in education
A report by Amnesty International (AI) released last week reminded us of more than the fact that the discrimination of Romani children persists in the Czech schools. The differing reactions to the report from Czech Education Minister Marcel Chládek and Czech Human Rights Minister Jiří Dienstbier once again showed that despite declarations of unity, the approaches taken by governing politicians to the future of inclusive education and the "practical schools" are very different.
Concerns over whether the current Government is serious about ending segregation in the schools are also heightened by repeated speculation that the Special Education Department at the Education Ministry is about to be beefed up - rumors that the ministry's press department is incapable of explaining. Some also consider that one of the reasons for the recent dismissal of Martin Šimáček as director of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion was his criticism of the Government's draft amendment to the Schools Act.
Ministers not united
"This organization, therefore, calls on the Prime Minister to unify the positions of the responsible ministers and to ensure the elimination of this illegal state of affairs," AI said last week. The human rights group was responding to criticism of its report about persistent discrimination in the Czech schools from Education Minister Chládek, who rejected it.
Chládek said he believes the Czech education system is not set up in such a way as to discriminate against anyone. He considers violations of the right to equal access to education to be individual failures.
The minister also said: "I think some organizations are basically making their livings because someone is discriminated against somewhere and they have turned it into a business. They are bothered that progress is being made."
This kind of language corresponds to the minister's communications from one year ago with the authors of the "Call to preserve the practical primary schools". In their challenge to the ministry, the authors wrote that the "functional system of special schools" is being destroyed by "so-called human rights defenders" - the Agency for Social Inclusion, nonprofits, and the ombud.
It is worth remembering that one of the initators of that challenge to the ministry was Mayor of Nový Bydžov Pavel Louda, and there is no doubt about what his relationship to the Romani minority is or why he supports the special schools. For example, Louda recently said: "Even Hollywood hasn't invented that kind of scenario. Integrating a Gypsy!... If you give a Gypsy your hand, he'll pluck it off and be thinking about how to rob you when you come around the corner."
At the time, Chládek did not object to Louda's criticisms of "human rights defenders". Instead, the minister courteously wrote back to the authors of the challenge that he hoped he would succeed in dispelling their concerns.
The response of Human Rights Minister Dienstber last week to the AI report directly contravened that of his Government colleague: "Understandably, we are aware of the vast majority of the problems mentioned and we see this report as confirmation of the fact that it is necessary to find appropriate measures to correct the situation." Dienstbier also said he considered the report important feedback and that he is determined to deal with it together with his coworkers.
What does such a discrepancy between the ministers mean, and who currently enjoys the stronger position in the Government and in the Czech Social Democratic Party? Some other events of the last few days seem to indicate that the future of inclusion is not a brilliant one.
A new department has not been created, but it does exist
Communications with the Czech Education Ministry about whether it is enhancing its special education section and whether it has set up a new department of "special education" have made a tragicomic impression on me. The EDUin NGO recently issued a press release about the creation of the new department.
"Maybe there exists a reasonable explanation for the ministry enhancing its support for special education in the Czech Republic. The public, however, will have a hard time considering what to make of this move when the ministry does not systematically inform the public about such essential changes in its activity," says Bob Kartous of EDUin.
I have done my best to verify with the ministry's press department whether the information published by EDUin is accurate. First I received a brief response from press spokesperson Klára Bílá to the effect that no new department has been created.
I then asked once again, just to be sure, and a moment later received a call from Deputy Education Minister Jaroslav Fidrmuc, who said that a new department has not been created but the previous structure has been rearranged. My understanding, therefore, is that a new department has not been created, but it does exist.
In order to make sure I understood the situation correctly, I attempted to contact the press department once again. This time I had two new questions to ask: Whether the (not-new) department is being led by Pavel Schneider, as EDUin reported, and why the ministry did not issue a press release about the change.
I contacted the ministry five times for an answer. I still have not received one.
AI doesn't get the bell curve
Why is this mention of Pavel Schneider important? He has a reputation as a fighter on behalf of preserving the "practical schools" and as an opponent of inclusion "at any cost".
He probably has this reputation for good reason. I found a piece written by him three years ago in which he criticizes the Czech Government Strategy to Combat Social Exclusion in the Field of Education (in a magazine called "School Management" - Řízení školy, 2 May 2012).
Schneider writes that it is not clear how the school reform will be financed and adds: "The transformation, or rather, the closure of the 'practical primary schools' is, for these reasons, a risky step that could lead to endangering the education both of healthy children and of those with specific needs." Naturally, this seems logical - without the corresponding budget, no reform will be possible.
Nevertheless, there is an essential difference between whether such a claim then leads to a call to allocate the corresponding funding for the reform, whether it leads to a defense of the status quo. It seems Schneider is a defender of the current form of the schools.
"Is it actually a good thing to educate all children in the mainstream? Wouldn't doing so deny the Czech special education tradition? When the 2 % of pupils who are exceptionally gifted have their own special schools, and the 5-10 % of gifted pupils visit college preparatory schools (the current state of up to 30 % of pupils attending them is naturally unsustainable), then a similar ratio would apply to pupils with specific needs at the other end of the bell curve," Schneider concludes, leaving no one in doubt as to his opinions.
What are you going to do - the bell curve is the bell curve. Amnesty International can't do anything about it!
No, I haven't yet learned whether Schneider has anything to do with this not-new non-department of special education. The ministry's press department is silent, and I am concerned that there is no reason to consider Chládek's ministry a firm backer of desegregation and inclusion.
What about Dienstbier?
Is Dienstbier a sufficient counterbalance to Chládek? He officially sticks to the idea of a unified Government approach and does not publicly profile himself in opposition to his colleagues in the Government or in the Czech Social Democratic Party.
Dienstbier claims that he and the Education Minister share the same opinions of the recent amendment to the Schools Act and of inclusion, down to the last detail. He also claims that he shares the same opinions on inclusion as former director Šimáček, and that his dismissal of Šimáček from the Agency for Social Inclusion was not because of differences of opinion.
Understandably, this does not mean that there is not actually a harsh clash going on within the coalition government and within the party between disparate views of discrimination in education, of the fight against social exclusion, of the law on social housing, and of the Romani Integration Strategy. We have no choice at this point but to fully agree with Amnesty International: Czech Prime Minister Sobotka should stop pretending that there are not serious conceptual differences between his ministers and should clearly communicate to the public which direction his Government's policies will take on these essential topics.
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